July 16, 2024
Book Reviews Poles Under Communism Polish Experience

Russian Imperialism Before Communism: Poland Under the Boot of Tsarist Russia. A Firsthand Account


Seven Months’ Residence in Russian Poland in 1863

by Fontescue L. M. Anderson. 1864 

Reviewed by Jan Peczkis


The author was an Englishman who visited Wilno-area partitioned Poland in the company of Count Alexander von Bisping-Galen (e. g, p. 4, 143), and then wrote about his experiences. My review is centered on his experiences with the local Jews, and on his observations of the unfolding January 1863 Insurrection.


Anderson comments, “The so-called management of the bridge, as indeed is the management of everything else in this country, is in the hands of Jews.” (p. 16).

He adds that, “They [the Jews] form the majority of the population in the towns of Russian Poland; and though not so numerous in the villages, yet they are, as I have already shown, the only medium of traffic among the village inhabitants. Whatsoever is bought or sold, from a glass of whiskey to a herd of oxen, the bargain passes through their hands.” (p. 81).

The foregoing can be generalized. Anderson writes, “The first [religious service], May 24, was passed at Wolkowysk; and, since the chief trade of this and every other place is in the hands of the Jews…” (p. 53).


Anderson comments, “One fact is quite clear, that paper money is the sole medium of commerce. I only once saw a gold coin, and on very few occasions any silver. The Jews charge a large percentage on the exchange of paper money; for every ruble, five kopeks. In the little towns, the Jews circulate notes of even the small amount of five kopeks each.” (pp. 61-62).


Anderson reports, “During our stay at Wilna, several Jews came into the room offering fur coats for sale, demanding at first an exorbitant sum for them, and then coming down to at least half-price. Finding us not willing to buy, they went away, and soon afterwards returned, offering at a still lower price.” (p. 82).

The author attended a fair, and describes what happened, “Plenty of Jewish hawkers were to be seen, too, among the crowd, trying to palm off upon the ignorant multitude, as prime bargains, caps, and women’s shoes, and every kind of tawdry ornament.” (p. 66). For more on Jews taking advantage of peasants by selling them inferior merchandize or worthless trinkets, see:


In another context, Anderson mentions, “…the grasping extortion of the Jewish trafficker.” (p. 213).


Anderson concludes, “The Jews are very fond of evading, if possible, the sharp eye of the Custom-House officer; and many are the stratagems which they sometimes practice successfully. Between Wereiki and Grodno is a large Jewish village, some of the inhabitants of which are very wealthy, having made their fortunes entirely by contraband trade. Tea, cigars, wine, silk–in fact, every kind of merchandize liable to duty, has been smuggled into the country by their cunning and persevering traffic.” (p. 86).


Anderson writes, “The indolence of the peasants arises from their ignorance, and is aggravated by the facility with which they obtain drink. In every village, there are three or four Jews who sell whiskey, the curse of the country. Along every road, the houses of these Jews are seen, standing about a mile apart from each other; and the dram is so cheap and potent, that intoxication prevails everywhere.” (p. 61).

He amplifies this fact by commenting, “When new, it [liquor] has a peculiarly disagreeable flavor, and is not to be compared with either Scotch or Irish whiskey. The peasants, however, are always eager to drink it, and their whole harvest earnings are sometimes pawned to the Jewish vendors of whiskey, long before the harvest is gathered in.” (p. 69).

——————————–January 1863 Insurrection——————————

The author saw firsthand some of the elements that led to1863 Polish revolt against Russian rule, and then saw part of the Insurrection himself.


As background to the January 1863 Insurrection, we must remember the oppressiveness of Russian rule over eastern Poland. For instance, author Anderson observes that, “Schools, indeed, may be found in the country; but the Polish language is forbidden to be taught in them, and the use of the Russian language only insisted upon. For this cause, the peasants are unwilling to send their children to school; and, since no compulsory attendance is enforced, as is the case in Prussia, the hopeless ignorance of the majority of the people is an inevitable result. In summer, the village school-rooms are shut up; and, in winter, only a very few children attend.” (p. 59).


Anderson comments, “The nobleman, although he had as much cause of complaint as any of them, relaxed not his efforts to soothe their vexed spirits. But lo! the terrible news, in January, 1863, from Warsaw, of the sudden and violent and unsparing military conscription, came like a thunder-clap upon them; and the flames of insurrection instantly burst forth, with a fury, which all the combined energies of the whole Russian Empire have not yet been able to quench.” (p. 118).


Anderson provides an insightful analysis of Polish combat tactics. He writes, “The fact is that the Polish insurgents conduct their warfare like that of the Maoris in New Zealand, creeping amongst the trees and bushes of the tangled forests. As soon as they have fired, they drop down again upon the ground, crawl to some distance, and re-load. Then, watching their opportunity, they suddenly start up again, fire, and once more sink to the earth. If victorious, they remain at their post; if unsuccessful, they disperse; and, before every engagement, the place of their next meeting is always arranged. The scarcity of ammunition, and the importance of not spreading alarm by needless firing, combine to make them very cautious; and they seldom venture upon a shot, unless they have brought themselves to a certain conclusion that it must effect the death of an enemy.” (pp. 132-133).


Anderson explains, “It has been a favorite part of Mouravieff’s policy to propitiate their [peasants] favor, by offering land and other bounties to all who would supply the information which he wished to collect. Thus, in a public decree, which I saw posted upon the walls of Wolkowysk, I observed the promise of a certain amount of rubles, as a reward for an insurgent taken in arms; another amount, for a returned insurgent; and a yet larger amount, for information against any landed proprietor who had favored the insurrection.” (p. 61).


Author Anderson mentions the May 1863 massacre of Poles at Lublin, in which at least 1,000 Poles were murdered. (p. 127). A Russian told him what happened, “The only hope for the insurgents was such partial help as might be afforded by instant flight. Many of them tried to hide themselves in the standing rye; but the Russian cavalry were ordered to charge them, and to give no quarter. The order was strictly obeyed, and the ground soon became literally a field of blood.’ Some of the insurgents, indeed, when driven to the last extremity, tried to defend themselves; and, with the sharp double- bladed scythes which were their chief weapons, inflicted frightful gashes upon the men and horses of the Russian cavalry. Many of the mangled horses were to be seen, having lost their riders, galloping about with their entrails hanging out, shrieking with pain and terror.” (p. 127).

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